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Strategy sessions I.2 > Girls' Education
 
World Education Forum
Dakar, Senegal 26-28 April 2000
 
Overcoming obstacles to educating girls
Issues Paper
 
Strategy Session I.2
 
Original : English
 
   Over the decade since the 1990 Jomtien conference, where girls' education was identified as a critical priority, much effort has been put into understanding the obstacles to girls' education and to determining effective strategies for overcoming them. This Session starts from the position that girls' education remains a very high priority for the world to achieve Education for All and that this does not need to be debated. The Session also assumes that there is no need to chronicle the range of obstacles to girls' education and the range of strategies that have been found to be effective as these are well documented in the literature and practice. Thus, the Session will focus on two critical issues that must be better understood if progress in girls' education is to be accelerated; one that manifests itself at the system level-the gender gap, and the other that is most evident at the classroom level-safety and security at school.
 
   The need to focus discussion in the 90 minutes allocated to a Strategy Session required hard choices. These two issues were selected because they are pertinent, global in nature, "emerging" in that there is not yet a general understanding of how they should be tackled, and they bring to the fore the necessity of looking at girls' education from a gender perspective and not only from a female perspective. Each issue is presented below with some of the elements that need to be taken into consideration in the discussion. First, to set the stage, the next section presents a short summary of the value of girls' education.
 

The value of girls' education acknowledged

 
The right to education is well established in many binding international human rights instruments, including the Convention on Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Yet, nearly two-thirds of the children who still are denied their right to an education are female
 

Girls' education is also extensively documented as an investment that, overall, has the largest returns for economic development. The broad social benefits of girls' education include increased family incomes; later marriages and reduced fertility rates; reduced infant and maternal mortality rates; better nourished and healthier children and families; lower childbirth-related death rates; greater opportunities and life choices for more women (including better chances to protect themselves against HIV/AIDS); and greater participation of women in development, as well as in political and economic decision-making. Because of these multiple, synergistic benefits, it is widely recognized that devoting resources to quality education for girls is among the best investments that any society can make. Furthermore, in recognition of the intergenerational benefits of female education, activities to support the basic education of young women and to provide "second chance" education for adolescent girls are also seen as important investments. So, educational resources are not being well used when they do not benefit girls and women.

 
World leaders have emphasized in the recent series of international conferences (Beijing, Copenhagen, Cairo, Rome, Vienna, ICPD+5, for example) and in other fora that without girls' education, the goal of gender equality will never be reached and progress in national and economic development will be restricted. Until all girls are fully enrolled and achieving a quality education along with their male counterparts, their fundamental human rights are denied and the pre-conditions for overall sustainable human development are unfulfilled. Furthermore, problems arising from economic and humanitarian crises threaten to reverse the few hard-won gains in girls' education. All these factors make it imperative to act decisively in support of Education for All, with particular attention to girls.
 

The gender gap

 
The gender gap refers to the differences in statistics for males and females that relate solely to gender. The most common indicator of the gender gap in education is the enrolment rate. Of the 52 countries with a gender gap in the primary Net Enrolment Ratio (NER) of 5% or more, 47 have a gender gap that disadvantages girls . The term gender gap is also used, and increasingly so, when looking at such things as completion, transition, and achievement rates. Where girls do complete a primary education, there is often a large gender gap in the transition rate to secondary school. As a result of the gender gap in schooling, female literacy rates continue to lag behind those of their male counterparts. When educational disadvantage is combined with structural and other factors such as poverty (especially in rural areas and shanty towns), disability, minority status, violence against girls and women, malnutrition, rapidly changing social systems, or HIV/AIDS risk, girls are systematically more disadvantaged than their male counterparts.
 
Immediately after the Jomtien conference, many organizations concerned with gender issues in education focused on those countries where there were large gender gaps (more than five per cent). Efforts were made to (1) identify which parts of the country (rural or urban, for example) exhibited disparities and (2) eliminate these disparities. Several lessons learned from the decade of experience are presented here to set the stage for consideration of how to move forward.
 
Lesson 1: In a number of countries investments in girls' education benefited girls, but they benefited boys more. What happened is that there were significant investments in girls' education, and girls' enrolments increased, but at the same time, boys enrolments increased more, resulting in a larger gender gap. What this may show is that the investments essentially improved the quality of schooling and that parents tended to put more children in school when the offering was better, but they still had no additional incentive to enroll their daughters to the same extent as their sons. Does this imply that the actions taken, while good, did not really address gender disparity? If so, what is a sensible way forward? Should quality improvements be continued beyond the point when all boys are in school, under the assumption that then further improvements will finally benefit girls?
 
Lesson 2: Movement toward gender parity in and of itself is not necessarily positive. In a few countries the gender gap is narrowing and thus, at first glance, might be applauded. The issue is more complicated, however, as this can be a result of boys' enrolments decreasing, rather than girls' enrolments rising. What indicators, then, must be looked at simultaneously with changes in gender gap over time to measure gains on all fronts? What are the implications for the education of girls in systems that are even failing boys at an increasing rate?
 
Lesson 3: Quality of education is essential for ensuring that girls get into school and learn, but it is not sufficient. As noted above, the growing gender gap in some countries where there are significant investments in girls' education indicates that quality improvements are both recognized and appreciated by parents, but they do not inevitably lead to their daughters' participation in education. Growing evidence suggests that the nature of the learning environment and societal attitudes are key to girls' education. With regard to the learning environment, should there be a broader definition of "quality" that embodies the concepts of "girl-friendly" or "gender-sensitive"? There is a lot of evidence on what improvements make it possible for girls to participate in education in communities that were initially not supportive: how can this information be shared more widely? How can educators and education systems involve the larger community to overcome the non-educational barriers to girls' education? How can an effective mix of educational and non-educational actions be determined that will address issues both of quality and the enabling environment
 
While these lessons and questions are by no means exhaustive, they tease out some of the key areas that have to be addressed from a national perspective if the education of girls is to be accelerated over the next decade. It is also clear that in order to understand gender gap issues, statistical data will have to be disaggregated by gender to sub-national levels. What actions can be taken by the international community to assist countries in their efforts to reduce the gender gap?
 
School is not a safe and secure place
 
Schools should be safe havens of learning; places where children are free to learn and to learn how to learn. Unfortunately, too many schools are not such safe havens, and in most of the world, it is girl children who are more at risk in unsafe schools.
 
Safety is a complex concept. When children are physically harmed, the violence is easy to see and understand. But other less visible forms of violence can make children feel unsure of themselves and damage their self esteem. Such invisible violence is insidious, but equally harmful. Children who are not secure in a learning environment will not be able to take full advantage of the learning opportunities offered, regardless of the richness of the environment. Where that environment is not particularly rich, which is the case for many millions of children, the threats that come in the form of unequal treatment or harassment, or bullying, or undervaluing, have a greater chance of being harmful.
 
Lesson 4: the journey to school is often not safe. Children who have to travel long distances to school have a greater chance of encountering difficult situations on the trip than those who live close to schools. The types of threats differ from urban to rural situations. Research demonstrates how much urban girls are harassed both physically and verbally when they use public transport, and in rural areas young girls may be accosted while walking on remote paths. While the experiences are different from situation to situation, the outcome is fairly common-it is no surprise that parents are unwilling to let their girls go to school under such circumstances. What are the mechanisms that can be put in place to make the journey to school safe and pleasant?
 
Lesson 5: while at school girls are often subjected to abuse. This abuse takes many forms. Often, girls are required to provide maintenance at the school, while the teachers and the boys use the time for academic work or leisure. Girls may be made to sit at the back of the classroom, or are called on infrequently, actions which make them develop negative self-images. Girls' self-confidence is further eroded when teaching materials portray girls and women as lesser beings than men. Sometimes teachers allow boys to make fun of girls solely because they are girls. How can girls' positive self-concepts be nurtured in ways that are also respectful of culture? What can be done to improve the content of curricula and learning materials so that they do not reinforce negative stereotypes? How can changes in favor of a disadvantaged group be introduced so that it is not viewed as being "in competition with" the advantaged group?
 
Lesson 6: some abuse is extremely physically harmful. There are many documented cases of physical abuse of girls at school, including rape. Girls may be sexually molested by male classmates or even by teachers. In most cases, it is the girls who suffer the public consequences as soon as an abuse becomes known. How can girls be taught to protect themselves? How can teachers be helped to view themselves as protectors and defenders of their students, and as mediators of change? What mechanisms can be put in place to ensure that when there is violence or abuse it is not the victim who must also bear the blame and the consequences?
 
These lessons and questions just scratch the surface of an extremely sensitive topic that is often not addressed because emotions can run so high. But, the experience of the 1990s shows that these issues must be addressed if the goals set at Jomtien are to become a reality. How can the international community help countries to make their schools safe havens for learning, for girls as well as for boys?
 
Conclusion
Addressing concerns about the education of girls requires a gender perspective. This, in turn, means paying close attention to what is happening to boys as well as to girls in our education systems and to how these systems have different effects on girls than on boys. In the long run, we are aiming for quality Education for All. This Strategy Session should serve to set forth part of the new agenda for the 21st Century-good education that is available equally to all girls and all boys.
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
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